War, what is it good for? – Paths of Glory (1957) Review

Paths of Glory posterIn the words of Edwin Starr, absolutely nothing, and I get the feeling that Stanley Kubrick and Kirk Douglas would both echo that, though perhaps not in the same manner. Both seemed absolutely intent on making this story, based on the novel by Humphrey Cobb, into a cinematic reality. And we should be thankful for their diligence because the searing anti-war message of Paths of Glory remains as powerful today as it ever was.

It’s 1916, and the First World War has been raging for two years. In Europe, a stalemate has been reached and the armies are dug in well. An order to attack a heavily fortified German position is passed down through the ranks of the French army until it reaches Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas). Despite recognising that the attack is suicidal, he orders his men forward. The attack is a disaster, with some men even refusing to leave their trenches. This enrages General Mireau (George Macready) and he orders the court-martial of three men from each company. I’ll say no more as not to spoil any of the events that follow, but rest assured that knowing the plot never hampers Paths of Glory and it manages to hit home every time.

This may be a story set within the French army but the fact that the actors are not French, do not speak French, and do not even speak English with French accents is indicative of the universal nature of its message. It’s not so much about the tragedy of the First World War as it is about the horrific nature of all wars. It could be transplanted into any other war scenario and still resonate, and therein lies its real strength.

Other war films might choose to portray the horrors of warfare using gory details, showing battle injuries and deaths as they occur in gruesome ways, and while this can be very effective, Paths of Glory takes a different approach. There is only one battle scene to speak of and most of the film unfolds through the dialogue between characters where you quickly begin to realise that rank is extremely important. This leads to the truly unsettling aspect about war that the film portrays. As you go up the ranks, the value of human life decreases rapidly. Generals talk of casualties as statistics, using patriotism to bully their troops and even refer to ordinary soldiers as ‘animals’ first and ‘scum’ later. Paths of Glory shows that war is truly horrific because it makes life a cheap commodity.

future Overlook Hotel bartender Joe Turkel on trial.

future Overlook Hotel bartender Joe Turkel on trial.

The acting and script are superb throughout, but it’s the camera work that really leaves you with the biggest impression. It always casts the audience as the observer, never throwing you into the action. Instead its movements are slow and methodical, the best examples being the long tracking shots that Kubrick deliberately keeps long to give a sense of grim inevitability. One such sequence near the end of the film becomes almost uncomfortable but its hard to look away.

Paths of Glory is an important film and practically necessary viewing for everyone. It’s unflinching and stark view of war never fails to be unpleasant and heart-breaking, and that’s exactly how it should be. The poem from which the book takes its title says it best – “The paths of glory lead but to the grave.”

Next time on my Kubrickian journey, Stanley lends Kirk and epic helping hand in Spartacus. My review of Kubrick’s previous film, The Killing, can be found here.

Sister Act – Frozen (2013) Review

FROZN_014M_G_ENG-GB_70x100.inddFor a long time now Disney has been the major purveyor of princess-based fairytales with the same formula working time and again – some evil is overcome and the princess finds her prince charming. With so many iterations it’s now worn out its welcome and the House of Mouse needs to change with the times. And times have changed. We’re now in an age of greater gender equality, hopefully leaving the archaic stereotypes of yesteryear behind, and it’s therefore unsurprising that films have come under greater scrutiny for their female characters than ever before, with tools such as the Bechdel Test providing an interesting insight into the representation of women on the silver screen.

On this level Frozen appears as a chilly breath of fresh air, telling the Hans Christian Anderson inspired story of two sisters – princesses no less – in the fictional kingdom of Arendelle. As the older of the two, Elsa is burdened by the responsibility of being the heir to the throne as well as possessing some crazy nondescript ice powers that she struggles to control as she grows up. In contrast, her younger sister Anna, having been bizarrely separated from her sister after a freak accident, is more carefree and cheerfully naive. They both harbour a desire to reconnect like they did as children and it’s this sisterly bond that drives the movie.

The more time you spend in the icy world of Arendelle however, the more the cracks begin to show. Not in the animation, which is on a par with the excellent Tangled, but in the world itself. I’m fully aware that you have to suspend your disbelief for a fairytale, but when said fairytale refuses to develop itself within the defined limits of its own setting, it starts to ask for too much disbelief. Unlike a lot of blockbuster movies released today, Frozen could easily have benefitted from an extended running time to solidify its story roots and envelop us in its snowy surroundings.

Time and effort has clearly been put into Elsa and Anna and the film is at its best when they are interacting and dealing with their interesting sisterhood. Their male counterparts play second fiddle and are as such less engaging, but it’s the right move to let the sisters take centre stage. Comic relief is hit and miss – yes to Olaf, no to Trolls – and the former’s frequent interjections are often chuckle-inducing. And the villain, you say? No clear one to speak of. This is new Disney, remember?

Frozen

New or old, this wouldn’t be Disney without a plethora of musical numbers and Frozen duly obliges. The range is a little inconsistent but for the most part they are smartly written and catchy from the adorable ‘Do You Want To Build A Snowman’ to the comedic ‘In Summer’. The ones that stand out as lesser efforts have to be the grating troll song ‘Fixer Upper’ and the cringe-worthy ‘Love Is An Open Door’ which is perhaps justified as being needed to set up the film’s radical take on true love. Lastly, ‘Let It Go’ is still a belter being the spiritual successor to Wicked’s ‘Defying Gravity’, with Idina Menzel (or Edel Dazeem if you prefer) again proving she has some of the best lungs in the business.

Returning to the story, its main thrust is love and just what the heck it is, and to its credit Frozen sticks firmly to it, almost too firmly I noticed on my second viewing as the signposts are apparent early on. But while its centre may be obvious, the spin the writers put on it amounts to a surprising and dramatic conclusion. Along with this unique look, the creators of Frozen have still managed to capture that patented Disney magic and that’s what a lot of people are here for. They won’t be disappointed.

Frozen is Disney’s second confident step on the new fairytale path that started with Tangled, and thanks to its two female leads it’s an enjoyable one too. Which Kingdom will they head to next?